Structure of Ballet Class
Today’s ballet class structure evolved through history absorbing traditions, movement practices, and dance science. In a beginning ballet class, dancers learn basic exercises and steps and they perform simple combinations at slow tempos. They gain technique competency, learn movement principles, develop a professional attitude, and become aware of customary practices in a dance studio.
The ballet class is different from a lecture course or another arts class. The ballet class has two distinct parts: the barre and the center. During both parts of the class, dancers follow protocols and rules of etiquette to expedite transitions from one combination to another so that more class time can be spent dancing.
The barre has two meanings: It is a piece of equipment and it is a portion of the ballet class. A barre is a wooden or metal rail that is either attached to several walls of the studio or is a free-standing, portable structure placed across the studio space. Barre also refers to the series of exercises done at the barre to warm up and strengthen the body as preparation for the second part of class. In today’s ballet class dancers often execute a series of pre-barre exercises that warm up the body and prepare them for performing the traditional barre exercises.
Whether you are a novice, experienced, or professional ballet dancer, executing barre is an essential part of ballet class. It prepares you for dancing during the second part of class. It establishes correct placement and it develops core and leg strength, directionality, balance, foot articulation, and weight transfer skills. Barre exercises help you to reconnect with the mind–body aspects of ballet and to deepen and refine your technique. The sequence of the barre exercises may differ depending on your teacher’s training or association with a particular school or method of instruction.
Once you have completed the barre exercises, you move to a place in the middle of the studio for the center portion of class. In the center, you learn steps, positions, and poses to gain a basic movement vocabulary of ballet. You repeat exercises from the barre and learn steps that develop into dynamic movement combinations without an outside means of support. In other words, in the center you apply what you learned at the barre and you learn to dance.
Center combinations vary in tempo and include various steps and poses in changing sequences to challenge you.
Parts of the center include the following:
- Center practice of selected exercises from the barre to refine technique, balance, and directionality
- Slow, or adagio, combinations include classical ballet poses, arm and foot positions, steps, and turns
- Fast, or allegro, combinations include small or large jumps, hops, and leaps that are performed either as short combinations moving side to side, front or back, or across the floor
In the beginning ballet class, exercises, steps, and sections of the class are not always introduced in the same order as they appear in a standard ballet class. By the end of the term, the standard barre and center will have emerged.
The teacher may designate groups of three or four dancers to perform combinations in the center so that everyone has space to dance. The first group takes their places in the middle of the studio to begin. The second and additional groups stand and wait their turn at the side or back of the studio. After the first group completes the combination, the musician for dance may perform a vamp or repetition of the music to cue the first group to exit to one side and the second group to take its place. This rotation of groups continues until everyone has executed the combination.
The teacher may have dancers perform combinations across the floor in lines, groups, duets, or solo from side to side in the studio or on the diagonal beginning at a back corner and traveling to the opposite front corner. Dancers in the first group should get about a third to halfway across the floor, which is usually 8 or more measures of music before the second group begins. The time between groups helps to alleviate any collisions and still keep the class moving across the floor.
When crossing the floor in lines parallel to the front of the classroom, it is easy to go to the end of the line so that the combination can start again. When performing the combination on the other side and moving across the floor in the opposite direction in a line or on a diagonal, often the second row of dancers or second group must move forward to lead the combination.
When waiting your turn to execute a combination in the center or across the floor, stand quietly and observe your peers. Most often dancers stand at the side of the studio toward the back. If the teacher permits, you may mark, or physically move through the combination, or mentally review the combinations. Practicing the combination mentally is an effective way to learn movement. While waiting your turn, try visualizing the steps, directions, and other elements of the combination in time to the music.
At the end of the traditional ballet class, dancers perform a révérence, a short combination in the center in which men bow and women curtsy, to thank the teacher and the musician for dance, if your class has one, and say good-bye. The ballet class ends with students applauding the teacher and musician for dance.
Cool-down exercises include slow movements and stretches that allow your body and mind to relax and regain balance before leaving the studio. Slowly stretching your muscles increases flexibility and helps your body recover from the work in class. Teachers determine when or whether to include a cool-down in class. Sometimes they have you perform stretching exercises between the barre and center, either at the barre or on the floor. They may have you cool down after the center either before or after class is officially over, when the body is warm from performing combinations across the floor. If your teacher does not include a cool-down, you may choose to do personal stretching after class before you leave the studio.